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Mask critics lose appeal over powers of health officers

Posted at 2:47 PM, Dec 16, 2022

County health officers don't need approval from elected officials to issue orders, the Michigan Court of Appeals said in a precedent-setting decision related to protests over COVID-19 school mask mandates.

Mask orders were controversial when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration changed course and left key decisions to local health departments. The result: blistering criticism and tense confrontations at county board meetings in some parts of Michigan.

Critics had pleaded with elected commissioners to intervene.

There is nothing in state law that “requires a local health officer to give notice, allow comment or obtain approval by a board of commissioners before issuing an order,” appeals court Judge Jane Markey wrote in a 3-0 opinion Thursday.

The case involved the Ottawa County health officer who required masks for kids, through 6th grade, at the start of the 2021-22 school year, until COVID-19 vaccines were widely available or other conditions were met.

Ottawa commissioners did not upset Lisa Stefanovsky's order, and there is no longer a mask mandate there. But the appeals court said it still was important to issue an opinion and set a legal standard.

“Although a pandemic-related order may not be likely to recur, the issuance of some type of emergency order by the health officer is likely to recur in the future,” the court said.

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